Carlo Mollica started suddenly, pulled out of his reverie by a string of cars racing past the large storefront windows that lined the waiting room. It was dark outside and raining heavily. Water was backing up between the granite curb and the paving stones in the street, and the cars were kicking spray up onto the glass.
He’d been drawing in the appointment book, the kind of thing he hadn’t done since he was a child. There was nothing better to do. No work, no pets. That morning he’d spayed a docile calico for a Milan-based stray animal association, but that was it. And that had been pro bono.
The calendar underneath his pen told him the day he’d feared had finally arrived. Tomorrow was Saturday, October 17th, and there were no appointments. No names, no notes, nothing else. Just his doodles and blank paper.
Mollica brushed imaginary dust off the spotless countertop and pulled a jangling bunch of keys out of one large pocket in his white veterinarian’s overcoat. It was time to close. He went to the back of the clinic and locked the door that opened out onto the courtyard. He passed through surgery and the kennel to make sure all the lights were off. The heavy smell of formaldehyde and industrial cleansers pervaded the clinic, and were strongest in the kennel, where a silver toy poodle lay in one cage, staring forlornly across the way at the prone form of the calico whose ovaries he’d removed just after lunch. Neither animal stirred at his passing, although the poodle whined faintly.
Back in the waiting room he selected the long iron key that locked the heavy metal roll-down shutters that would protect the windows for the night. Just then the door opened, bringing a wave of cold, humid air into the waiting room. A man came in. He wore the heavy clothing and thick, battered boots of a farmer.
“Good evening,” said Mollica, “can I help you? I was just about to close…”
“I’m Zenga. I need to see the doctor.”
“Carlo Mollica,” said the doctor. “I run the clinic now.”
“Where’s the doctor?”
“I am the doctor.”
“Mollica. You said Mollica?”
“That’s right. I’m Franco’s son.”
It took Zenga a little while to digest this. He took a couple of steps closer to the countertop, scrutinizing Mollica’s face.
“I didn’t know the doctor had any children.”
“And you’re a veterinarian too?”
“But you’re all grown up… Where have you been?” It sounded like an accusation.
Mollica pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, stifling a curt response. This was not the city. He had to learn how to handle these people. Otherwise empty Saturdays would turn into empty weekdays, and then what would he do?
“I work…I have been working in Milan. For another clinic.”
Zenga sniffed and said, “Well, I need to speak to the doctor. Your father. It’s important.”
Mollica spread both hands on the countertop. “Signor Zenga,” he said, “I am sorry to tell you that my father is no longer the doctor at this clinic. He has passed away. I returned to take his place.”
“He passed away?”
“Yes. He’s dead.”
Mollica looked down at the appointment book. “Almost six months ago.”
The men stood there in silence. The rain outside had picked up, blowing sheets against the window that rattled and crackled like wrapping paper.
“I didn’t know,” said Zenga. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I-
“Yes, well, it was quite a shock, but that’s all over now,” said the doctor, a little too quickly. “Life goes on, no? I’m sure we can help you with whatever…but I don’t see any animal with you. What do you need?”
A change came over Zenga, a radical transformation from gruff to teary that took some twenty seconds to complete. His cragged, angry face sagged and gave way. His shoulders hunched up and his eyes filled with tears. Mollica wondered for a moment if the man wasn’t mad.
“I’m sorry…” protested Zenga, “s-s-sorry…I can’t…” The man pulled a filthy gray cloth out of his jacket pocket and waved it around his face.
“Please,” said Mollica, “Please sit down. Let me get you something…a drink?”
“No, no. I’ll be alright.” Zenga remained standing, honking into the gray rag.
Mollica stepped out around the countertop. “Were you a friend of my father’s?”
Zenga gave a small sob, groaning and shaking his head. Despite himself, Mollica extended a tentative hand to the man’s shoulder. But something, some tremor or tenseness, made him stop before they made contact. Zenga tucked the rag back in the pocket he’d taken it from and turned to face Mollica.
“No, doctor. No. Not your father, God rest. It’s my daughter,” he said. “my daughter, she’s…Wait, I have a picture. Here. Her name is Lucia.”
“Signor Zenga, I don’t…”
“I knew your father. Your father was a good man. He would know how to help me. My daughter worked in the city. She sold apartments, for Galbetti, you know the company?”
“She’s working for them for three years. Three. But still she came home every night. She lived with us. She helped her mother. My wife is not well… She liked living here. It’s a long commute, but said she missed the outdoors in the city. She liked to run. You see this, you see this girl? This is her best friend. Francesca Saraceni. She lives two houses down. They always went running together. Two, three times every week they went running.” Zenga shook his head and frowned. The concept of running without being chased remained incomprehensible to him. Then he put the photos down on the countertop between them and looked Mollica straight in the eye. “Doctor Mollica. They liked to run out on Via Nomentana. Do you know that street?”
Mollica shook his head, bewildered.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s a country road, out beyond Viale Certosa. Not many houses out there, just some farms. One evening this past spring they went running out there. They ran together…talking, laughing, I don’t know. Then, from nowhere, two dogs came up behind them. They were pit bulls, these dogs, do you know them?”
This time, Mollica nodded soberly.
“They didn’t bark. They didn’t growl. They didn’t make any noise, they just ran up behind these girls. They were silent, these dogs, silent as if they were hunting, do you understand, doctor? This is important.”
“I understand, Signor Zenga.”
“What were they hunting, these dogs? I’ll tell you. They were hunting my daughter. They came on suddenly. There was no time to react. One dog jumps on my daughter and bites her – Here!” Zenga reached out suddenly and grabbed the doctor’s forearm just below the elbow. “He doesn’t let go. Lucia hits him, she struggles, but that beast doesn’t let go.” Like the dog, Zenga refused to let go of the doctor’s arm. The doctor recoiled and opened his mouth to say something, but Zenga went on in a rush and refused to be interrupted. “Then she loses her balance. She falls to the ground, fighting this dog that bites her arm. When she was on the ground the other dog jumped on her. He bites her throat and face. He begins to eat her, doctor!
“Francesca climbs over a gate. She stands on the other side of the gate, screaming, watching these dogs eat my daughter alive. She looks around for something to throw, some rocks maybe, but all she finds is an empty bottle. She threw that. She threw her shoes. She screamed and hit the bars of the gate. But they wouldn’t stop.
“My daughter didn’t scream anymore. She didn’t make a sound. She lost consciousness, thank God. The dogs stayed there to tug and play and eat.
“Francesca ran away. She ran to a house and called the police. The owner of the house went back to the dogs, alone. Francesca couldn’t go. She was overcome. The dogs were still there, but when that man arrived with a big stick they ran away. The man recognized them, though. They belonged to Signor Bertoli, who lives down the street. He has a factory, this Bertoli. He makes roof tiles. He keeps the dogs to scare off gypsies, to keep them out of his warehouse. Somehow the dogs escaped.”
Signor Zenga’s voice trailed off then, and he let go of Mollica’s arm. The doctor stood there, immobile. He didn’t know what to say. What could anyone say?
From the photograph on the countertop Zenga’s daughter, a smiling, brown-haired girl with a dimple in her chin, stared up at them. She was clinging to the girl by her side, almost hiding shyly behind her. The other girl was looking away from the camera and laughing. A flashy red motorcycle was parked in the background.
“This is a terrible story,” said Mollica, a little helplessly.
Zenga nodded. The gray rag came out and he blew his nose into it gently. “I need your help, doctor. I came here needing your father’s help, and I discover that he can’t help me anymore. So now it is the son’s turn.”
“Signor Zenga, I-
“Don’t talk, doctor. Just listen. Those dogs, the dogs that killed my daughter, they are still alive. The police say there’s no proof. They found Bertoli’s dogs locked up in the warehouse. Locked up, tied up and clean.
“I could kill these dogs today, tonight. I could jump Bertoli’s fence and shoot them. I could put poison in a big beefsteak and throw it over the fence. But everyone will know it was me. I have been…I have been very angry, doctor. I have been angry with everyone. Some people suspect I want to kill those dogs. And even if they would like to see these pit bulls dead too, the police cannot let me get away with killing.
“My wife has no one now, doctor. She has only me. What will happen if I am arrested? What will I say to her? How will I make her understand? I cannot. And that’s why I have come to you.”
“Signor Zenga, are you suggesting that I kill Signor Bertoli’s dogs?”
“No, I wouldn’t presume…” Zenga paused for a moment. “But you can help me.”
“I don’t see-
“Please, Signor Mollica, please. I am begging you. You are a doctor, a veterinarian. There must be some drug, some medicine that can kill these dogs without making a mess. There must be something I can put in their food and feed it to them so that it won’t be too obvious what I’ve done…”
Zenga straightened up, catching and holding Mollica’s gaze. “I know I am asking you to do a tremendous thing. I know this must be difficult.” He leaned in so that the two men’s faces were a mere foot apart. Mollica could smell the sweet, heavy stink of garlic on the man and had to steel himself not to recoil. “I know many people, doctor. I am the representative for the sindacato here. I am an honest man. I do not accept bribes and I do not make bribes. But what is right, is right. Help me and I will make sure everyone knows what an excellent veterinarian you are. I will do everything in my power to fill your clinic with my people.”
When he was studying at the university in Milan, Carlo Mollica’s few friends took to calling him “molliccio” after the soft, spongy inner part of a loaf of bread. They were making fun of him for being indecisive, wishy-washy. It wasn’t the gentlest of nicknames, and Carlo didn’t like it very much. But even he couldn’t argue with its veracity.
He’d always felt people were divided into active and reactive. Heros and Proles. Actors and audience. And he was unquestionably up in the stands. His vision of himself wasn’t so much negative – he remained the star of his own life – as it was resigned. Carlo Mollica felt carried along by life – the victim, and occasionally the beneficiary, of things that happened to him. He didn’t personally make much happen. He had enough to do just reacting without making any grand gestures on his own.
His father’s untimely death had changed everything. Suddenly Carlo found himself saddled with a large country house and clinic and no one to take them over. He also found himself in a mountain of debt thanks to exorbitant inheritance taxes.
As always, he’d decided there was no choice. He had to move back home and run the clinic, at least until he could find another veterinarian willing to buy it off of him. He didn’t want to, but he seemed unable to come up with alternatives. Carlo was the kind of person who could only see one option at a time.
And now, with cold rain pelting the windows outside the clinic and an overwrought stranger and former father standing expectantly before him, Carlo Mollica found himself in unfamiliar territory. For what felt like the first time in his life, he saw clear choices. There were two roads. There was a yes, and a helping and a killing. There was a no, and a denying and a moral victory that somehow smacked of defeat.
Carlo swayed a little where he was standing, overwhelmed.
“Signor Mollica, are you alright?” Zenga thought the man might be ill.
“I’m…fine,” said the doctor. “Wait here please.”
He turned on his right heel and disappeared into the kennel. He was desperate to get away from Zenga. Once in the kennel, he grabbed hold of the cold metal operating table to steady himself. His heart was pounding and he was short of breath. The silver poodle whined and scratched his claws down the squares of the grate, an odd, rhythmic click, click, clickety-click.
What on earth did this man expect him to do? Did he really expect Carlo Mollica, an established veterinarian, to help him kill these dogs? He’d never seen this man before in his life. How was he supposed to know if his story was true? And even if the dogs had done these terrible things, it would be entirely unethical to kill them like this, on the sly. They should be…what? Brought to trial? He didn’t know…but something…
Carlo began to be assailed by doubts. The girl’s face floated before him, smiling from the photograph. He felt in his heart Zenga’s story was true. This man had lost his daughter. He even vaguely remembered reading something about it…or was that another pit bull story? There had been a lot of media buzz about dog attacks over the past year. The parliament had promptly enacted a new muzzle law that the population just as promptly ignored… Was he confusing his memories?
He could hear Zenga pacing around outside in the waiting room. He had been wrong about this man. This was no farmer, despite the boots. This was a union officer who represented thousands of workers…thousands of families…thousands of families with pets. There would be no more empty Saturdays…
Mollica shook his head. How could he even think such things?
But there it was.
Mollica realized that helping Zenga was helping himself. He also feared, with the nervous, overwhelmed fear of a solitary man, that not helping Zenga was tantamount to going bankrupt.
He wished suddenly for his father. Perhaps it was that fleeting thought, no more than a flash of desire, which drew his eyes to the medicine shelf. An idea occurred to him. Radical, different. A vision, really, in the most literal sense: his eyes were drawn to large glass container sitting alone on the far end of his medicine shelf. It was an antique; a hand-blown glass pharmaceutical vase with its own bell cover, the thick crystal riddled with frozen bubbles. His father had kept it on the countertop out front, brimming with dog biscuits, ready to tame even the unruliest Yorkshire. Now it was half-full with bright white powder: Pentobarbital sodium. Pentothal…a knock-out drug, an analgesic.
Mollica continued to stare at the glass, but he no longer saw an antique jar filled with white powder. He saw an easy way out, painless and, best of all, guilt-free. Before he could think about it too much, he reached up and took down the big glass jar. He quickly measured out what he needed into a plastic bag, twisting the top and tying it shut. He held the bag up and inspected it, shook his head, untied it and took out a heaping spoonful. Then he retied the bag and pushed through the double doors and back into the waiting room.
Zenga was standing at the far end by the exit. He appeared to be leaving.
“Here signor Zenga here, take this.”
“What is it?”
“Never mind what it is. It’s what you’re looking for. Mix the powder in with some ground beef. It is odorless and tasteless. The dogs won’t know. They will fall asleep…” Mollica hesitated, unsure what the appropriate cocktail of truth and deception would be. In the end he opted for simplicity. “They will fall asleep and then die.”
“One thing, Signor Zenga. I can’t be sure of the dosage. I can’t know exactly how much to use. I have given you enough to kill…ten dogs, but I can’t offer you any guarantees. Animals can have strange reactions sometimes…”
“This is enough for ten dogs?”
“It’s very, very strong. I’m sure it will work. Anyways, there isn’t anything else. Take it. This is what you came here for.”
Zenga looked from the doctor to the plastic bag and back again. His expression was strangely melancholy. Mollica mistook the man’s hesitation for suspicion, and blurted out, “It’s really the best thing I have, Signor Zenga. Even my father would-
“Will they suffer?”
“What, the dogs?”
“No. They don’t suffer. They just fall asleep.”
Zenga smiled then, but his eyes were bright with tears. “This is the best way, doctor,” he said.
Mollica nodded, unsure whether it was a statement or a question.
“Doctor,” continued Zenga, “thank you. My daughter thanks you. She is already thanking you. This is right. This is justice. Yes, I’m sure this is justice…”
After Zenga left, Mollica closed the clinic and walked home. He walked close to the walls of the buildings, careful to stay beyond the splashes of passing cars, walking so quickly it was almost running, as if speed could put Zenga’s misery and the empty clinic and his own troubled morality far behind him.
He’d saved the dogs, and rescued the clinic. He couldn’t understand why he felt so defeated.
The following morning Mollica woke up dreading work. He was afraid he’d find Zenga there waiting for him. He presumed Zenga wouldn’t wait, that he’d have poisoned the dogs that very night. And perhaps this morning he had already discovered that they hadn’t died. What had seemed like an easy escape last night now seemed flimsy and transparent. Even Zenga had asked, “This is enough for ten dogs?”
But there was no one at the clinic. Mollica raised the metal shutters, filling the clinic with harsh yellow-white autumn sunlight. He even propped the front door open; the rain had washed the cement, and the air was crisp and fresh.
Mollica stayed open all morning. Zenga still didn’t appear. A couple of old women came in together towards lunchtime, dragging a limping Jack Terrier behind them. One of the women had rocked over his forepaw. There was nothing really wrong with the terrier, but Mollica was sweet with the dog anyways, cuddling it and feeding it tidbits from his pockets. The dog licked his fingers and yapped excitedly. Mollica found himself chatting with the two women, keeping them in the office much longer than he would have otherwise. He felt he needed a shield.
When they left, the younger of the two old women turned around on the doorstep, shaking a finger at the young doctor.
“You’ve been very kind, doctor.”
“Thank you, Signora Tanzi. But it really was nothing. He’ll be running around by tomorrow morning. You’ll see.”
“You’ve been very kind. My sister said you were difficult. ‘The new veterinarian is stuck-up,’ she said, ‘he’s from the city.’ But my sister’s always been foolish.”
Mollica smiled and shrugged his shoulders, unsure how to respond.
The following week went by in much the same way. Mollica had few appointments, but several clients came in every day, bringing their beloved animals to him for help. He found himself talking to these few clients more than before; in part he was hoping someone might mention Zenga and Bertoli and the pit bulls, in part he wanted others around him in case Zenga came storming in. And also, for the first time in his adult life, Mollica found himself appreciating the company of others. Their chatter kept his darker thoughts at bay.
It seemed to him that more clients were coming to his clinic than before. Not many, but a few. The following Saturday, for example, he had two appointments. And the appointment book had a few names scribbled in every day, sometimes both in the morning and afternoon.
He began to ask people how they came to him. No one mentioned Zenga or Bertoli. Most said they had been his father’s clients. They were happy to see his son continue, happy to keep bringing their pets here.
A few said they had been referred to him “by a friend.” Occasionally that friend had a name – invariably another client – occasionally no name was given, and Mollica was free to suppose the intervention of the local sindacato representative.
Three weeks after Zenga’s visit, the moment Mollica had nearly stopped fearing finally arrived. Once again, as if fate had a sense of humor, it came in the evening near closing, again during a rainstorm, and again when Mollica was alone in the clinic.
He saw at once that it was not Zenga. This man was much larger, thick through the shoulders and with a large, distended gut that could be seen even under his bulky raincoat. He had a bushy beard and enormous meaty hands. And this man was carrying the limp, trembling form of some dark-colored dog in his arms, wrapped in a coarse olive green blanket. He walked quickly to the countertop, not even bothering to close the door behind him, and deposited the dog before Mollica.
“Doctor, help me, please. My dog, Chicca…she’s not well. I think she’s dying!”
Mollica opened the green blanket. The dog was a dark gray, almost black pit bull. She had a white triangle on her chest, and a silvering muzzle. Her ears were chewed down almost to stumps. She was shaking violently and frothing slightly at the corners of her mouth. When the doctor reached out his hand one eye rolled up at him and a low growl rumbled out of the trembling chest.
“Don’t worry. She doesn’t bite. She just growls and barks.”
“She’s overwrought now. There’s no telling what she’ll do.”
The man laid a meaty hand on the dog’s head. “She won’t bite you, I swear it. I raised this dog myself.”
“Okay. Close the door and bring her in back so that we can take a look at her.”
When they were in the kennel Mollica had the man lay his dog on the metal operating table and began inspecting her. She continued to growl, but never so much as snapped her jaws at him, just as her owner had promised. It didn’t take long for the veterinarian to reach a conclusion.
“Has she been outside at all in the past ten, twelve hours?” asked Mollica.
“We keep her outside. She and Cucciolo have a doghouse…” the man gestured vaguely, as if the doghouse were somewhere behind him. “But they are always outside.”
“Is Cucciolo another dog?”
“Yes, one of her pups, all grown up now. Doctor, do you think she’s going to die?”
“I don’t know, signor B-…I’m sorry, what is your name?”
“Bertoli. Marco Bertoli.”
“Signor Bertoli, your dog has eaten something that is producing an allergic reaction. She is not well… How long has she been like this?”
“I found her like this an hour ago. But it’s been getting worse…I don’t know how long ago she ate…whatever. It could have been anytime today.”
“When was the last time you saw her healthy?”
“Last night…I fed them…the same food as always.”
“What about your other dog, does he show any…symptoms?”
“Cucciolo? No, he was sleeping like a baby. He never even woke up, even when I came to take her away.”
Just then the dog on the table started whining feverishly, an unnerving, high-pitched moan broken only by rapid gasps for breath.
Mollica listened to her heartbeat for a moment, then checked her pupils, then stepped away from the table. He felt numb, wooden. His stethoscope slipped out of his fingers and dropped to the floor without his even realizing it.
“What? Oh, that doesn’t matter. Come here, signor Bertoli.” Mollica pulled the man away from the table. He found he couldn’t meet Bertoli’s eyes, but Bertoli was distraught and saw nothing but his tortured dog.
“Signor Bertoli…I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do. Your…Chicca has already assimilated what she ingested.” Mollica took a breath and held it in an attempt to stop the ringing in his ears, but it only made things worse.
“What do you mean, doctor?” The dog’s whining was starting to upset the other animals in the kennel, some of which knocked against their cages or scratched at the walls. A German Shepard in a large pen by the rear door began barking in between each whine.
“I’m saying your dog is dying.” He had to raise his voice almost to a shout to be heard above the din. “She is suffering now. We need to put her to sleep.”
“But can’t you… Isn’t there anything… Isn’t there anything you can do to stop it?!”
“There is no antidote. This is an allergic reaction. I would have to know exactly what she took…” Mollica stooped and picked up the stethoscope. “But even if I did know…even if I knew the exact substance and the exact dose – I mean exactly how much she took – I still wouldn’t be able to stop it now. I am too late.”
Bertoli straightened his shoulders and swallowed. His bushy beard was trembling and his eyes were red around their rims.
“Okay,” he said, shouting above the animal din. “Let’s get this over with.”
Mollica took a ready syringe out of one large drawer under the metal table and injected a clear liquid into the dog’s forearm. She stopped whining almost immediately. Her breathing slowed.
“Is she…?” asked Bertoli.
“No, this is a painkiller. She isn’t hurting any more.”
The racket in the kennel died down. The two men could talk normally.
“If you want,” said Mollica, “we can just let nature take its course, now.”
“Does she feel anything?”
“She may feel a little pain, but nothing like what she was suffering from before.”
Bertoli stood over his dog for a moment, running his hand over her triangular head, scratching along her ribcage, patting her here and there. The dog made no reaction other than low, shallow breaths.
“No,” said Bertoli abruptly, “just do it and get it over with.”
Mollica took a rubber-stopped bottle down from off the medicine shelf, plunged a syringe down into it and sucked up the right number of cc’s. Then he injected the serum into the dog. Her breathing slowed, then slowed again, then stopped. Half a minute went by and neither man said anything. One of the dog’s hind legs suddenly began to kick a little. Bertoli looked quickly up at Mollica, but the veterinarian shook his head.
“She’s gone now,” he said, “that’s just her nerve endings. It’s automatic.” He put away the syringes and placed the bottle back up on the shelf. Bertoli made no move to leave.
“Signor Bertoli, I’m going to go back out into the office. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you’d like…to say goodbye.”
Bertoli nodded and Mollica left, walking straight back through the waiting room to the front door. He opened the door and let cold, wet air wash over him. It froze the sweat on his forehead.
He was sure Bertoli suspected nothing, despite the fact that he’d almost called the man by his name. But it hardly mattered. He’d killed that dog as surely as if he had shot it in the back of the head. He couldn’t have known the dog would be allergic to pentothal…but what did that matter?
Mollica tried to console himself thinking of Zenga’s daughter, smiling for the camera. But somehow it was impossible for him to reconcile Zenga’s story of ravenous dogs with the aging, trembling pit bull he’d just put to sleep. He had no sense that justice had been done.
Bertoli came out into the waiting room, the dog wrapped up in the green blanket in his arms.
“I’m going to put her back in the van. It’s parked right out there.”
When the man came back he found Mollica sitting on a bench in the waiting room, his head in his hands.
“Doctor,” he asked, “how much do I owe you?”
Mollica grimaced as if he were in pain. “Nothing,” he said.
“No, I must owe you something.”
“Signor Bertoli, I wouldn’t take your money even if you threw it at me. Please. I insist.”
Bertoli said nothing, a little shocked by the doctor’s vehemence. He thought about leaving then, and even took a step towards the door, but his basically amicable nature, together with the fatigue of everything he’d been through that evening, stopped him. Instead of leaving, he sat down in a chair opposite the doctor.
“You know,” said Bertoli, “I knew your father. Not well, but enough to know he was a good veterinarian.”
“He took good care of my dogs. Once, when Chicca was having trouble with a litter…oh, I guess this was about five, six years ago, he even came out to my factory to check up on her. I didn’t call. He was just worried and decided to come by before going home, to make sure everything was alright. I remember he refused to be paid, too.”
Mollica said nothing and continued to stare at the floor.
“You did a fine job, doctor. Chicca was suffering. I knew she was dying when I brought her in here. I mean I didn’t know, but I knew. Do you see what I’m saying? She was getting old…I guess I’ve been ready for awhile. What I’m trying to say is, don’t take it too hard. I’m sure you couldn’t have done anything.”
Mollica started to groan, but cut it off by clearing his throat. Without looking up from the floor he said, “I’m going back to the city. Franzoni will take me back. I don’t know what I’m doing out here…” He appeared to be talking to himself.
“There was nothing else you could do. You said so yourself.” The big man was watching Mollica, a look of pity on his face. “Listen, it was good that you were here. When the veterinarian…when your father died, people had to drive all the way to Pavia or Milan for help. Tonight, Chicca would have died before I got there. I would have always wondered… Now the son is here, taking over for the father. People like that; they like the continuity. I know, I hear them talk down at the sindacale.”
Mollica’s head came up sharply. “The sindacale?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m the regional representative for the sindacato. Local politics, you know, we talk to everybody. People say good things about you, really. You should be proud.” There was a forced enthusiasm to what Bertoli was saying that made his statements suspect, but Mollica hadn’t heard anything beyond “sindacato.”
“You’re the sindacato representative?”
“But I thought… I had heard that Signor Zenga was the representative.”
“Mauro Zenga? No, you must have heard wrong. I’m the representative. Mauro Zenga is my wife’s brother, my brother-in-law.”
Mollica’s jaw dropped open. “Then…his daughter…your niece…”
Bertoli smiled sadly. “You’ve heard about our Lucia. A terrible story. My brother-in-law has never recovered. He’s still lost in his grief. No parent should ever have to bury their child…”
Mollica’s head was reeling, truth and invention blending together and leading away like abandoned paths in the forest. “Did…did they ever find out…?”
“Who it was? No, no they didn’t. The police did what they could, but by the time they recovered the body…” Bertoli shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“My God…” said Mollica.
Signor Bertoli slapped his hands down on his knees and stood up quickly, intent on changing the subject. “But that’s the past, now. Thank you again for your help. I should go and let you go home.” He made his way to the door.
Suddenly Mollica jumped up and ran to the door. He watched the big man cross the street and open the door to his battered white van.
“Signor Bertoli?” called Mollica, “why don’t you bring your other dog by tomorrow. I just want to make sure he’s alright. I won’t charge you anything. I just want to be sure.”
“Call me when you get home if you see he’s behaving strangely. The number is still the same.”
Bertoli got into his car and rolled down the window. “So I guess you’ll stick around at least until tomorrow, right doctor?”
Mollica shook his head, looking up and down the street before answering. “I’ll be here,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Aaron Maines is a Milan-based writer and editor.